An NHS healthy eating app promotes ultra-processed junk food and describes biscuits, cakes and crisps as a ‘good choice’, an investigation has found.
Obesity campaigners last night described the revelation as ‘astonishing’ and demanded an urgent review of the NHS Food Scanner.
The free app, which has been downloaded more than half a million times, regularly recommends users buy ultra-processed products and even endorses instant noodles and an energy drink, the Soil Association discovered.
Ultra-processed food is made using ingredients or processes not found in a typical kitchen and has been linked to cancer, heart disease, depression and early death.
The free app, which has been downloaded more than half a million times, regularly recommends users buy ultra-processed products and even endorses instant noodles and an energy drink, the Soil Association discovered. It also says McVitie’s Rich Tea Biscuits and Mr Kipling Bakewell Slices are healthy options
Products endorsed or recommended by the app include biscuits, cakes, crisps, chocolate puddings, fizzy pop, energy drinks and instant noodles
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS
• Eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count
• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain
• Thirty grams of fibre a day. This is the same as eating all of the following: Five portions of fruit and vegetables, two whole-wheat cereal biscuits, two thick slices of wholemeal bread and a large baked potato with the skin on
• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks), choosing lower fat and lower sugar options
• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including two portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts
• Drink six to eight cups/glasses of water a day
• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide
British children have the highest levels of ultra-processed food intake in Europe, with under 14s getting two-thirds of their daily energy intake from this source.
The Government has encouraged parents to download the app to their mobile phone so they can make healthier decisions when food shopping.
Users scan the barcode on products to see how much fat, sugar and salt they contain, with those below a certain threshold awarded a ‘Good Choice’ badge.
If a product is deemed to be too fatty, sugary or salty, the app suggests ‘Smart Swaps’ that it considers to be a healthier alternative.
But the probe found health officials are failing to consider the processing food and drink has gone through before certifying them.
Suggested swaps often contain less sugar or fat than the scanned product but a long list of ingredients that would never be found in a home kitchen, such as emulsifiers, additives and artificial sweeteners.
Products endorsed or recommended by the app include biscuits, cakes, crisps, chocolate puddings, fizzy pop, energy drinks and instant noodles.
Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, said: ‘It is astonishing that an NHS healthy eating app is pushing this food without considering how it is produced.
‘Everyone needs to eat a bit of fat, sugar and salt but it is how the food is processed that is the real killer. You can’t look at these things in isolation.
‘The government should be recommending healthy foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, rather than just more junk food with a little less sugar.
‘This app needs to be reviewed as it certainly won’t improve the nation’s health in its current form.’
A Soil Association report into its investigation says a ‘growing body of research’ has linked ultra-processed food to ill health and weight gain.
It highlights studies that show the damaging effect industrial additives and processing techniques have on the gut microbiome and overall health.
This means these foods carry health risks even when relatively lower in fat, sugar and salt, the charity says.
It criticises the UK government for failing to follow other nations in adopting legislation or measures aimed at limiting intake of these foods.
The report adds: ‘Despite the UK being one of the highest consumers of ultra-processed food and British children having the highest levels of ultra-processed food intake in Europe, these products have been ignored in UK government guidance addressing dietary ill health.
‘Worse still, recent efforts to help parents and carers choose healthy products for their children have actually encouraged the purchase of ultra-processed food and drink.
‘We have found products encouraging unhealthy snacking, artificially sweetened beverages and even energy drinks awarded the UK government’s Good Choice badge and promoted as healthy swaps by its NHS Food Scanner App.
‘Our campaign calls on UK government to stop taking the biscuit, remove their Good Choice badge from these products and support people to eat less ultra-processed food.’
Researchers from the Soil Association asked 17 parents to scan three food and drink products they regularly bought for their children and to note the ‘Smart Swaps’.
Analysis revealed 104 of these products had been awarded a ‘Good Choice’, ‘High-5 go go green’ or ‘Healthier Choice’ badge but 80 per cent of these were ultra-processed.
Cathy Cliff, campaign coordinator at the Soil Association, said: ‘We are shocked to see the government not only ignoring the health risks around ultra-processed foods but actively encouraging families to consume them.
‘It seems like the government is more concerned about corporate profits than children’s health.
‘When every penny counts, it is near criminal that families are being misled to waste money on junk food that doesn’t fill you up with anything other than health risks.
‘The government’s dietary advice is severely out of date and its failure to provide good advice is putting us all at risk.
‘It is wrong that fizzy drinks and crisps are being promoted to children.
‘The government is taking the biscuit. We are calling for them to cut the crap – stop telling families that ultra-processed is a good choice and show true leadership by helping us all to eat better.
‘Other countries like France, Chile, and Brazil are taking action to make it easier for people to eat less of these unhealthy foods – why is the UK dragging its feet?’
Miss Cliff added: ‘Many of the products given a thumbs up or high five by the NHS Food Scanner app are unhealthy, ultra-processed food and drink sold by some of the most popular British brands.
‘The government’s Better Health campaign has been linked to commercial food businesses from the start.
‘With junk food manufacturers endorsed by the Good Choice badge, it is unforgivable that a public health campaign is at times benefiting food businesses more than families.’
Parent Rachel Childs, who completed the survey, and said: ‘The NHS app doesn’t account for level of processing and doesn’t suggest switching to nutrient-dense foods – why buy biscuits slightly lower in sugar when I could be encouraged to buy fruit instead?
‘It misses the whole idea of planning a nutritionally balanced diet.
‘Just swapping processed foods for other processed foods misses concepts such as the need for dietary diversity and reducing snacking.’
A healthy living campaign run on TV, radio, streaming services and social media encouraged parents to download the app.
Promotional leaflets were also given to parents and carers at school.
The app has been downloaded more than 500,000 times according to the Google Play store.
However, this does not account for downloads via other app stores, including Apple, so the figure is likely to be significantly higher.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘Diets high in ultra-processed foods are also high in calories, sugar, saturated fat and salt, which can cause chronic illnesses including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.
‘The Food Scanner app helps families to see what’s in their food and drinks and gives choices of products that can help them cut down on sugar, saturated fat and salt, including alternatives to family favourites such as biscuits, crisps and fizzy drinks.
‘We are always looking to improve the app experience, including extending and personalising messaging around different food and drink categories and we welcome feedback from parents as well as organisations to aid us in this process.’